What’s more invisible these days than a Maine black bear that doesn’t do bait?

A bear-hunting outfitter who does.

For weeks, Mainers have been bombarded with TV ads that aim, by any objective measure, to drum up opposition to the proposed ban on bear baiting, trapping and hounding by essentially scaring the scat out of us.

The people on the screen are all in uniform – employed by either the Maine Warden Service or the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

They tout Maine’s “bear management program” as one of the best on the continent – although they don’t mention who’s doing the judging.

Their not-so-subtle suggestion: Either oppose Question 1 or you’ll soon be running for your life.

“It’s a serious threat to public safety,” warns Judy Camuso, a state wildlife biologist, in one ad.

“It’s a serious threat to public safety,” echoes Game Warden Rick LaFlamme after recalling how he once had to shoot an “aggressive bear” in Portland. The accompanying footage shows a police dog flushing the bear from a tree. No one was hurt – except, of course, the bear.

“I’m on my way,” LaFlamme says into his radio halfway through the 30-second spot, hitting his siren and heading for … who knows?

Without a doubt, the ads hit their target: As the old German proverb says, “fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”

Or, in this case, fear takes the bear from deep in the Maine woods and drops it right into your own backyard.

Whether it’s proper for uniformed state employees to lobby so vigorously for one side of a public policy debate is now a question for Maine’s courts to decide. As Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting put it in their lawsuit this week against the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, “Maine law forbids public agencies from using public resources to take sides in elections or attempt to influence results of elections, absent specific legislative authorization.”

The pro-Question 1 group’s suit also alleges that the department has fallen far short of its legal obligation to honor Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting’s Freedom of Access request for all communications between state officials and various private groups and individuals.

Let me go out on a limb here. If and when those communications become public, they will show a relationship between the state and the hunters it regulates that’s cozier than two cubs in a den in mid-January.

So back to that ad campaign.

Everywhere you look, you see serious-looking men and women with serious-looking patches on their sleeves alerting the citizenry – the vast majority of whom are not hunters – that danger lurks just beyond Question 1.

How much danger?

They don’t say. Nor can they prove with any scientific certainty that a vote for Question 1 will drive countless bears, who now get their pastries from thousands of remote bait piles, from the deep woods to a Dunkin’ Donuts near you.

But here’s one other thing they don’t say – or, more importantly, show:

Since the mid-1970s, bear hunting by bait has become big business in northern and western Maine. Primarily out-of-state hunters spend thousands of dollars each season to travel here, hook up with an outfitter who will transport them to an electronically surveilled bait pile and, if the outfitters’ own sales pitches are to be believed, bag an unsuspecting bear well over half the time.

Put more simply, there’s a big economic component to this debate. Yet the pro-baiting crowd’s TV ads – far and away the most effective way to communicate directly with voters – makes no mention of that whatsoever.

Why not?

Here’s a theory: It’s one thing to talk about Maine’s “nationally recognized bear management program” against a sylvan backdrop with nary a bear in sight.

It’s quite another to show a guy dragging a trailer-load of bait barrels, each brimming with hundreds of pounds of fat-laden garbage, out into the woods and offloading it in an area frequented by bears.

Or worse yet, imagine a TV ad that shows said bear actually feeding on said bait (or caught in a snare, or treed by baying hounds) until – kaboom! – said hunter blows the bear’s brains out.

It’s not pretty. And as any political operative will tell you, animal executions – sorry, but it’s hard to call this hunting – are high on the list of visuals guaranteed to drive up your negatives.

Consider the in-depth, informative piece on Question 1 by Brian Kevin in the August issue of Down East magazine. In it, Kevin divulges, “This very magazine, in fact, declined to publish a photo of a bait bucket, for fear that to do so would be tantamount to condemning it and violate impartiality.”

Meaning it’s OK to talk about bear baiting, even debate it, as long as we don’t shock the senses by actually showing it?

Apparently so.

So why, images aside, don’t the anti-Question 1 ads at least talk about the business side of this whole thing?

Why not carefully select a strapping young outfitter, surround him with his wife and kids, toss in a few friendly hounds, and have him explain why bear baiting spells the difference between making it through the long winter and going broke?

“Public safety is the number one issue in this campaign,” replied James Cote, campaign manager for the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council/Save Maine’s Bear Hunt, in an email on Thursday. “That being said, you’ll continue to hear more from us on the economy and the politics of the issue.”

Let’s hope so. This referendum, after all, comes down to a deeply personal decision: Either you think it’s acceptable to “harvest” bear by what the folks in uniforms will only call “the most effective methods we use to control bears and prevent attacks,” or you don’t.

Either way, there’s something fundamentally wrong with public officials going on television not to fully inform us, but to frighten us half to death.

Even worse, they’d prefer we keep our eyes closed.


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